Chopin – why should pianists have all the fun?

Over 230 of Chopin’s works survive. To this day they remain some of the most emotive, beautiful and, often, heart-rending musical compositions of all time.

Every piece of music Chopin composed involved the piano and, by far the vast majority of them were for solo piano. So, you would forgive musicians of other instruments a small inkling of green-eyed envy at not having the opportunity to play his legendary works.

But, the time for wailing and teeth-gnashing in the bedroom hasn’t arrived just yet. Thankfully for us, transcriptions of some of Chopin’s compositions exist that do justice to the great man’s vision and musicality.

Chopin, beautifully written for the violin

Take for instance the Italian violinist Anna Tifu’s version of Chopin’s Nocturne in C Sharp Minor. The Nathan Milstein transcription of this piece for violin and piano brings us as close to the depth of sentiment and beauty displayed within the original composition as any rendering on the piano.

Tifu’s interpretation is wonderful and surprisingly accomplished in that, if in our minds eye we could forget that we had ever heard the original piano composition, we could easily believe that this was Chopin writing expressly for the violin.

So what makes a good transcription?

For me, the Tifu interpretation of the Nocturne in C Sharp Minor ticks all the boxes required for a great transcription – and here’s why:

1. The transcription remains as close to the composer’s original vision as possible (i.e. the transcriber is not seeking to impose his/her own voice over the composition).

2. The instrument does not change the feeling or style of the piece to the extent that it becomes unrecognizable (let’s be honest, it’s difficult to imagine a nocturne being played on a didgeridoo).

3. Any adaptations that depart from the composition remain in keeping with the musical choices of the original piece.

Have a listen yourselves and see what you think:

You see, transcribing a piece of music for another instrument is no easy feat. Nowadays, we have some compositions that have been brought so successfully to their adopted instrument that they are more famous as transcriptions than original compositions (think Asturias (Leyendas) for the classical guitar, originally for solo piano)

But, there are some transcriptions of pieces that persistently grind on my nerves. There is a violin and piano transcription of Chopin’s Nocturne Op.9 No.2 in E Flat Major (no names mentioned) that digresses so far from the original in certain passages that it takes you completely out of the music. Inappropriate note choices, phrasing and adaptations can leave a transcription dead in the water long before you evaluate the quality of the musicians performing it.

Final thoughts

To leave you with today, I am linking to video of Andres Segovia playing Chopin’s short and stunningly beautiful Prelude in A. It’s hard to know what Chopin would have said of the many transcriptions of his work but, I’d like to think that in these two instances he would have wholeheartedly and joyfully approved.


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